We don't think of our furniture as a health hazard, save for maybe the sharp corners of a kitchen table. But several studies have shown that the materials used to make furniture -- from the formaldehyde used in wood adhesives, to the chemicals used in upholstery -- can cause long-term health issues, including respiratory problems, developmental delays, and fertility issues.
The latest such study, by researchers at Duke University and the University of California at Berkeley, found many sofas contain a toxic flame retardant linked to cancer, hormone disruption and neurological problems. Overall, 85 percent of the 102 polyurethane-foam sofas tested were treated with flame retardants known to be toxic or that lack information about their health effects. Forty-one percent contained cancer-causing chlorinated Tris (TDCPP), a flame retardant banned for use in children's clothing in 1977. Seventeen percent contained the chemical pentaBDE, which has been banned worldwide since 2004. Researchers even found toxic flame retardants in sofas labeled as eco-friendly.
Foam furniture and products sold in California must meet flammability standards set in 1975. Flame retardants are often an inexpensive way to achieve this, according to this Nov. 14, 2012 San Francisco Gate article. But other sofas without the "meets California flammability standards" tag could be toxic, too, because the manufacturer has no way of knowing if the foam manufacturer used these chemicals, say the study's authors, as that information is proprietary.
California lawmakers are now considering a change in the regulations, but "it's not a problem you can shop your way out of," Judy Levin, pollution prevention director at the Center for Environmental Health told the San Francisco Gate.
Still, there are some things consumers can do to help green their home. Offgassing, which occurs when chemicals evaporate, remains one of the biggest concerns with chemicals in furniture, particularly foam upholstery. When buying new furniture, look for the Greenguard air quality certification which helps buyers identify interior products and materials that have low chemical emissions. To further minimize harmful fumes, place a new piece of furniture outside when you first get it, suggests the Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club Green Home offers other helpful tips for buying, reusing and recycling furniture to make your living space greener and healthier.
If you want to buy a "green" sofa, look for ones made with organic coverings and soy-based foam, down or wool fill. A 2007 Treehugger.com blog lists five "green" sofas you should consider. GreenSofas.com offers dozens of fully customizable eco-friendly sofas and loveseats, and The Sofa Company has its customizable "Complete Green Sofa Package."
Can't afford a newer, greener couch? Cover your old one with an organic cotton, hemp or linen slipcover, or have it reupholstered with one of these materials. Organic fabrics will often be free of heavy metal dyes and won't be treated with flame retardants. While it won't completely reduce your exposure to the chemicals already in your old sofa, new covering may prevent, at least, direct chemical to skin contact.
And here's a way to save money while going green: Buy furniture in January or July, when retailers replace current stock with new lines and reduce prices to clear out old inventory.